What Is a Body Wrap?

No, not the spa treatment. The police tool.

A man died Sunday morning in South San Francisco after a 15-minute struggle with police officers. Before his death, the police had placed him in “a so-called ’body wrap’ device.” What’s that?

A high-tech hog-tie. The body wrap used by the South San Francisco police was produced by Safe Restraints, Inc., which touts its product—called “the Wrap”—as “the ultimate immobilization system.” The Wrap consists of a shoulder harness, a binding for the ankles, and a blanket with straps that encircles and restrains the legs. The harness and the ankle strap attach to loops on the blanket with carabiners, which helps to keep captives from moving. The whole device comes in a handy black carrying case.

The manufacturer recommends using the Wrap on prisoners who are already facedown with their hands cuffed behind their back—the handcuffs then hook onto the shoulder harness. A properly wrapped prisoner will be stuck in a seated position, unable to run or kick. Some doctors argue that police use of conventional hog-tying—with the wrists and ankles tied together, and the prisoner lying on his or her stomach—can be dangerous; restraining prisoners in a seated position supposedly reduces the risk of suffocation. The Wrap also comes with handles, to make prisoner transport easier.

Restraint manufacturers have produced many variants of the wrap for different purposes. Humane Restraint of Waunakee, Wisc., for example, makes the “H umane Wrap“—an 8-inch-wide strip of cotton with Velcro fasteners. Humane wraps can be used to restrict arm movement, leg movement, or both. The company also produces “Blanket Wrap,” a full-body restraint with a Velcro closure that looks like a sleeping bag that’s open on both ends.

Humane wraps were first developed for use in psychiatric hospitals, where straitjackets are now out of fashion. (Today it’s sold for both medical and law-enforcement uses.) Until the 1980s, some hospitals wrapped patients in “cold wet sheet packs”—basically, cold wet sheets—as a form of restraint (the cold was thought to produce a calming effect). Cold wet sheet packs aren’t really used in mental hospitals anymore, however. Today, simple wraps are used mainly to restrain patients while transporting them.

Bonus explainer: The phrase “body wrap” was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2004, but the meaning was more benign. According to Webster’s New Millennium edition, a body wrap is “a personal care product put on the skin, after which the body is wrapped in heat-retaining blankets; such products contain natural ingredients such as coconut oil, mud, or seaweed and are used to soften the skin and draw out impurities.”

Next question?

Explainer thanks Joe Barnes of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization.